Ness Edwards

Miner, socialist, pacifist, leader

Born in 1897, Ness Edwards’ career took him from the coal mines of Wales to the front benches of Westminster – despite being one of around 16,000 conscientious objectors during the First World War.

Why did he care so much about miners?

Ness grew up in Welsh mining country – in fact, he started working in a pit in Abertillery, Monmouthshire, on his 13th birthday. Later he became a miners’ agent, a sort of union rep for the mining community.

Ok, so why was Ness important?

Well, he held lots of positions of authority in his lifetime. He was elected Labour MP for Caerphilly, and became both parliamentary secretary to the minister of labour and a member of the privy council (a formal body that’s supposed to advise the King or Queen). From 1950 to 1951 he was postmaster general, a Cabinet-level ministerial position whose equivalent today would be the secretary of state for culture, media and sport.

Lots of titles, then – did he actually do anything for the people?

Absolutely. He supported the general strike of 1926, holding demonstrations against the owners of the coal mines and making sure starving miners and their families were fed. And in 1938, he helped to evacuate miners and their families from Prague when Hitler annexed part of Czechoslovakia. A lifelong socialist, Ness had joined the Independent Labour Party, the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Plebs League as a teenager – groups that were left-wing and opposed to war.

So he was anti-war … how did that work out?

Not well! Ness was just 19 years old when conscription began during the First World War. Initially, mining had been considered too important to the country to disrupt, but soon all young men were being conscripted.

What happened to him?

The records are a bit unclear. Some say Ness went on the run until he was arrested in 1918 and sent to the military. After refusing to obey orders there he was tried and sentenced to six months in prison and then passed to the Home Office Scheme, which allowed conscientious objectors to work at labour camps instead of prison. Conditions varied in these camps, but some men said they were treated like slaves.

Other records, however, claim he left the Home Office Scheme in 1917 and went on the run again, laying low in the Brecon Beacons until mid-1918.

What is clear is that the Welshman was a fervent pacifist. Yet the stigma that many conscientious objectors faced after the war didn’t hinder his career. The experience did stay with him, though. As a politician responsible for the employment of conscientious objectors during the Second World War, Ness made sure they were given productive work. This time, being a pacifist would not result in the futile, grueling labour Ness had faced himself decades earlier.